"Being a mom is the most wonderful thing ever," Cherie told me. She is one of two women who share with me their experiences as working mothers of young children in the Everett-Seattle corridor. Both recognize that they are among the fortunate -- with two incomes and supportive employers. Even so, struggles with child care, commutes, and rising prices take a toll. "We need help," Cherie concludes.
Cherie is 37, married, lives in Kirkland, works at a non-profit in Seattle, and is happily pregnant again. Although her son is only 11 months old and she took three months off work after he was born, they are already on their third daycare. The first closed suddenly when the operators got divorced. Her mother was able to fly out for a week and her husband's employer offered emergency daycare, so they were able to manage until they found a new provider. Cherie also described her investment in her career prior to motherhood, and her decision for this phase of life not to take on added job responsibilities. Two incomes seemed essential to her. "I don't know how single moms make ends meet," she noted.
Shari lives in Everett and has a staff position at the University of Washington. She has a five-year-old son and three-year-old daughter who attend daycare three days a week. Daycare costs more than her mortgage, but she likes the quality of the program and the diversity of kids at the center. Next year her son will be in full-day kindergarten in Everett. Even though she and her husband will have to pay for half of the kindergarten day and after school care, daycare costs will drop. Shari talked about careful budgeting, not taking a big family vacation this year, and deciding to stay in Everett despite the lengthy commute because they love their community.
Neither of these women seemed concerned with the "opting out" or "mommy wars" that the media has hyped. They did talk about making choices, the economic reality of women in the workforce, and the difference that public policy could make.
An important change both women want to see was in paid family leave. They view the program, starting next year in Washington, that will provide five weeks of partly paid parental leave as a small step in the right direction.
Shari took nine weeks off when her son was born, with most of it paid through saved-up vacation and sick leave. When her daughter was born two years later, she had less accumulated paid leave and only took six weeks off. Cherie was in a similar situation. She had saved up enough vacation and sick leave to cover most of her first three-month maternity leave, but for this next pregnancy she has little saved. She has had to use most of her sick leave when her son has been sick.
Both women know of others who had more generous maternity leave benefits, and that some women got little or nothing. Both have linked into the national network, MomsRising.org, and support the group's platform of real supports for mothers and families, including paid family leave, quality child care and after school care, fair wages, health care, and paid sick days.
Statistics bear out the problems. Nationally, 71 percent of women with children under 18 are in the workforce, compared to 94 percent of men. Of mothers with children under one year, 52 percent are in the workforce. Women now make up 49 percent of Washington workers. Yet according to the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics, only 8 percent of workers in private industry receive paid family leave, 57 percent receive sick leave, and 77 percent get vacation. And the average number of vacation days after one year is only nine days.
Unfortunately, the wage gap between men and women also remains. And women lose more financial ground during the decades when they are most focused on raising children. A 25-year-old woman in Snohomish county can expect to earn 71 percent of the average monthly pay of a man her same age, while a 50-year-old woman only earns 61 percent.
In different words and in different ways, both Shari and Cherie said similar things. They love being moms and took for granted the reality of being working moms. They accepted some of the compromises in family finances and careers that came with their choices. But they also recognize that the health, education, and well-being of young children are community concerns. That some families and some kids face much tougher challenges. That the quality of child care and the ability to spend time with a new child shouldn't depend entirely on family resources. Both these moms say that better public investments in child care and paid family leave would benefit the whole society.